Is mental illness contagious?

Inherited perhaps but contagious, surely not? On second thought, perhaps there is some logic to this concept. When we spend time with someone, their mood state can impact on ours; bring us down if our companion is depressed or elevate our mood if he/she is happy. It’s a phenomena known as ‘emotional contagion’.

But having a change in mood isn’t the same as developing or catching a mental illness. Whilst the cause of bipolar I disorder isn’t set in stone, the current view points to physical changes in the brain, an imbalance in naturally occurring neurotransmitters and a genetic element to the disease (concluded by the fact that it’s common in people who have a first-degree relative with the condition).

So could spending significant time with someone with a mental illness actually trigger physically changes to the brain? We don’t have the answers but if we look at the evidence for trauma there are clues that the environment and emotions can impact on the brain.

Let’s look at the evidence for trauma;extensive neuroimaging studies on the brains of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients show that several regions (the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) differ structurally and functionally from those of healthy individuals.1 Even more fascinating, a study published this August of Holocaust survivors suggests that trauma is passed on to children's genes.2


What people believe


But lets stop upturning stones for a moment. As fascinating as it is, what’s relevant is the impact that believing mental illness is contagious has on patients.

It would appear from a recent study that some people do believe it’s possible to catch a mental condition, just as one might yield to the common cold by inhaling particles of the virus from an infectious person.

The conclusion was made by Marsh and Shanks3 who questioned 45 undergraduates about 12 different mental disorders that ranged from alcohol abuse to bipolar disorder.

For each one, participants were asked to rate how likely they thought it would be for someone to catch the disorder through close contact with a person who had it, with ratings on a scale from zero percent probability to 100 percent probability.

Ratings varied strongly across disorders, with the highest average estimated transmission rates for alcohol abuse (56 percent), anorexia (35.7 percent), major depressive disorder (32.2 percent) and hypochondria (30.6 percent). The disorders with the lowest estimated transmission rates were Tourette's disorder (4.2 percent), autism (5.3 percent), schizophrenia (7.4 percent) and bipolar disorder (11.2 percent).


Reasons people think mental illness is catching


So what were the reasons respondents in this study thought caused mental illness to be contagious? The most common mechanisms of transmission for mental illness involved social interactions over the course of years rather than over a short-term timescale.

Not surprisingly, however, the responses participants provided were pretty light on specifics. Comments such as “the person's anxiety will rub off" and "If you hang out with someone that drinks all the time, you will soon be drinking a lot as well."

Reasons aside, this insight presents an opportunity. Whilst this study indicates another reason why some people might be giving people with bipolar and other mental illnesses a wide berth, if we know that this to be the case, we have a chance to educate people to believe differently. By so doing, we might succeed in stopping more people from avoiding those with mental illness.


Social interaction key to well-being


This is incredibly important because we know that social interaction is key to well-being and not just for those with mental illness. Studies show that social relationships—both quantity and quality—affect mental and physical health as well as mortality risk.4 Studies also demonstrate that patientswith bipolar disorder with low social support take longer to recover from episodes and are more symptomatic across a 6-month follow-up.5

The hope is that this and future research will deliver the answers we need to help us to chip away at the unnecessary stigmatization and challenges that people with bipolar and other mental health conditions face and by so doing, lead us to a more bipolar and mental-ill-health friendly world.

Our correspondent’s highlights from the symposium are meant as a fair representation of the scientific content presented. The views and opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect those of Lundbeck.

  1. J. Douglas Bremner. Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006 Dec; 8(4): 445–461
  2. Rachel Yehuda et al. Holocaust exposure induced intergenerational effects on FKBP5 methylation. Published Online: August 12, 2015.
  3. Jessecae K. Marsh, Lindzi L. Shanks. Thinking you can catch mental illness: How beliefs about membership attainment and category structure influence interactions with mental health category members. Memory & Cognition, October 2014, Volume 42, Issue 7, pp 1011-1025
  4. J Health Soc Behav. 2010; 51(Suppl): S54–S66 
  5. Johnson, Sheri L et al. Social support and the course of bipolar disorder. J Abnormal Psych, Vol 108(4), Nov 1999, 558-566.  Special Section: Psychosocial Factors in the Course and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder


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